Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, and Dennis Haysbert Take us Back to the 1950s.
DIRECTED BY TODD HAYNES/2002
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 19, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Julianne Moore stars as a 1950s society woman caught up in a silent maelstrom of forbidden loves in Todd Haynes’s masterfully evocative Far From Heaven. Awash with hues of the era in which it’s set, Haynes, in his unrelenting quest to follow in the footsteps of great 1950s Hollywood filmmaker Douglas Sirk, gives himself the freedom to go even further than Sirk, sometimes to Van Gough-like extremes. Costumes, hair, props and characters’ attitudes are all central to his impossible, once-upon-a-time world and its beloved, notoriously fake façades.
Haynes, known for his expert taking of and running with the Douglas Sirk Baton of Melodrama (before him it was Rainer Werner Fassbinder), this time serves up some true, juicy Sirk prime. Sirk’s own indulgences were fewer steps removed from the cultural reality of his day than Haynes’s imitation of his work. After all, Sirk was actually working in the 1950s. The last gasp of Hollywood’s earnest genre of “women’s pictures”, Sirk’s films, often starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson and Robert Stack, were extraordinarily bold in their ability to snakebite the wrongs of upperclass “normalcy” by blending in so alluringly, so precisely. Haynes, interestingly, in recreating Sirk’s same world in the year 2002, is working the opposite way- yet to the exact same ends.
Successful costume dramas, though, strip away while piling on: the more ornate and removed they get, the more contemporary viewers are predisposed to run towards anything on screen that is relatable. Far From Heaven is no exception. Although it is set in a Connecticut small town of the late 1950s, by today’s standards, it might as well be science fiction. Yet, the attitudes and assumptions of white superiority and heteronormative culture reign at every level. With this film, we are taken inside the repressive cliches of the 1950s; cliches that are amplified in the interest of exposing them to the light of reality.
Thematically, Far From Heaven could be (and, in fact, has been) dismissed as another contemporary film that exists to shame 1950s America for its particularly uptight Eisenhower-era prudishness and attitudes. The point, though, is absolutely not to shine a light on how we’ve come; but rather to indicate how far we haven’t.
Like science fiction, Haynes is all too happy to bask in and show off his fabricated foreign setting. The visual reality of Far From Heaven is at least two steps removed from real life of today. Jadeite coffee mugs, brass geometric interior partitions, silk scarves and women’s magazines; every car perfectly gleaming and every article of clothing starched. Far From Heaven could just as easily be “Mid-Century Modern: The Movie”.
Julianne Moore, as brilliant as ever, plays Cathy Whitaker, an archetypal reticent upperclass wife and mother of the era. In a world where everyone’s already made up their minds about everyone else well in advance of ever meeting them, her character arc steers her head-on into empathy for “the coloreds” and the reality that a loved one can be gay. It’s a dump truck’s worth of topical topics suddenly plopped into her life, but then, this is a women’s melodramatic throwback. Her quiet struggle to maintain her dignity amid the tumultuousness she finds herself a part of puts her on the lonely path of solitary survival. In other words, “bootstraps feminism”. This is inevitable in Far From Heaven. The question is how Cathy, an imperfect woman, grapples her way through it. Moore, in her posture and through her vulnerable eyes, completely embodies the struggle.
Dennis Quiad, a typically masculine star going out on a limb as Cathy’s troubled husband Frank, is the “wet noodle male” of Sirk’s films; a man whose apparent staunch backbone proves cracker-thin in what would’ve been the Robert Stack role. Frank is a corporate higher-up at the film’s Magnavox surrogate. Haynes walks a most intriguing line between sympathizing with Frank’s homosexual temptation and treating it like a horror movie. The gay bars and public hookup zones he ventures towards are bathed in the kind of sickly green gelled light that’s straight out of a Mario Bava horror movie. Frank himself is a self-loathing heavy drinker who’s prone to improper outbursts and flop sweating. Quiad proves perfect in the role.
Also perfect in his role- what would’ve been Rock Hudson’s- is Dennis Haysbert (of 24 fame). Haysbert is Raymond Deagan, an upright, well-educated and tragically over-qualified new gardener at the Whitaker house. An intellectual and upstanding single father, Raymond is just as romantically available as he is perpetually ostracized due to the color of his skin. Like Cathy, he often finds himself a part of a very autumnal palate, at one point homaging the most famous outdoor moment of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. But in this world of side-eyed segregation, can Cathy’s friendship with Raymond ever click beyond their discussions of how he feels in a white world as “the only one in the room”? Being that Cathy’s increasingly troubled marriage to Frank is still on, should it?
For this sparkling new Blu-ray edition, Kino Lorber has thankfully included the original DVD commentary track by director Todd Haynes. Haynes came well prepared for his commentary, a rare filmmaker who understood even then that his accompanying recorded thoughts may very well be passed along through the ages along with the film itself. (And, here we are). Therefore, he takes the opportunity to not only flag up the fantastic accomplishments of his own cast and crew, but to connect the dots well and truly to his hero, Douglas Sirk (particularly All That Heaven Allows). He liberally shifts back and forth into film historian mode, reading long quotes from Fassbinder and others in regard to the vitality of Sirk. This has to rank among the best audio commentary tracks, tremendously interesting, entertaining, informative, and continuous.
Also included are several promotional puff pieces. Though obviously studio sanctioned cookie-cutter EPK fodder, these short featurettes do offer fans enough to warrant a look. It’s the worst thing about this kind of bland, innocuous behind-the-scenes inclusions: when there’s one or two eye-opening bits that the editors couldn’t help including that, yes, make the other ninety-four percent that is Entertainment Tonight feel-good b-roll worth sitting through. It’s an opportunity to glimpse the edge of a constructed gallery set within an unrelated larger building. Or the way Haynes bounds out from behind his monitor to coach a performer. Or a sound bite from the Production Designer that nearly betrays his exhaustion with the assignment of flagging up the fact that this is a movie- as opposed to his usual goal of concealing that.
While Douglas Sirk’s films, in their unrelenting modernity, proved to be stealthy Force De Résistance- the sharply-post 9/11 Far From Heaven opted to take on the Bush-era milieu of its day in the guise of a lavish period piece; “Oscar-bait”. (Netting only four nominations and no wins, it hardly proved a contender). The approach, being one of immediate loftiness, had no hope of ever reaching the masses the way Sirk naturally did. And yet, in Haynes’s world, the weight and blatant quality of the world-as-façade is the point all the more; that, “Things now are not so different.”
And sadly, things now are not so different. By placing his story of cloistering opinions of minorities in such an artificially familiar past, Haynes forces an intentional recognition to the continued bigotry of today. Far From Heaven is an exemplar film in a most interesting lineage of socially-minded melodrama.